Tennessee advances bill to narrowly loosen abortion ban

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee’s GOP-dominant Statehouse on Tuesday took a first step toward loosening one of the strictest abortion bans in the country, advancing a narrow exemption bill over threats from anti-abortion advocates that doing so would come with political retribution.

Abortion Rights Demonstrator

FILE – Abortion-rights demonstrator holds a sign during a rally on May 14, 2022, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Tennessee’s GOP-dominant Statehouse on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023, took a first step toward loosening one of the strictest abortion bans in the country, advancing a narrow exemption bill over threats from anti-abortion advocates that doing so would come with political retribution. (AP Photo/Ben Margot, File)

Tennessee currently has no explicit exemptions in its abortion ban. Instead the law includes an “affirmative defense” for doctors, meaning that the burden is on the physician to prove that an abortion was medically necessary, instead of requiring the state to prove the opposite.

Republican Gov. Bill Lee and other top GOP leaders have spent months defending the current law, arguing that pregnant women are protected from harm and doctors are unlikely to face any felony charges as outlined in the statute. However a group of Republican lawmakers have begun pushing back and saying the ban should be changed.

That tension was apparent Tuesday when a Republican-controlled panel advanced legislation removing the “affirmative defense” element and clarifying situations where abortion is allowed, including adding ectopic pregnancies, “medically futile pregnancies” and lethal fetal anomalies. There is no exception for rape and incest.

“No one wants to tell their spouse, child or loved one that their life is not important in a medical emergency as you watch them die when they could have been saved,” said Republican Rep. Esther Helton-Haynes, the bill’s sponsor. “This bill clarifies what I believe was the original intent of (the law), which is to ban elective abortion in the state of Tennessee.”

Other Republicans said doctors are currently terrified to do their job out of fear of being prosecuted and losing their medical license.

“We have to protect our doctors,” said Rep. Sabi Kumar, who is a surgeon. “So they feel they’re fulfilling the Hippocratic oath, doing God’s work, saving and preserving lives — that’s what physicians do.”

One of the most vocal opponents to changing the law has been Tennessee Right to Life, which already revoked its endorsement of a GOP lawmaker after the physician said he supported explicit exemptions. After a lengthy back-and-forth with House committee members, Will Brewer, the group’s lobbyist said there could be more consequences for those who back the change.

“I would not consider this a pro-life law. And in discussions with with our (political action committee), they have informed me that they would score this negatively,” he said.

“Once one doctor is let off the hook in a criminal trial, it would be open season for other doctors that wanted to perform bad-faith terminations,” Brewer said.

His remarks sparked pushback from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers and also prompted Speaker Cameron Sexton to join the hearing and issue a firm rebuke.

“It’s beneath the dignity of this committee, and it’s an offense to my colleagues in here to have a witness come before this committee and assert political campaign threats during testimony,” Sexton said.

Sexton has been one of the more prominent Republican to call for changes to the law. He has said the burden of proof should be on prosecutors, not doctors, and he would support exceptions for rape and incest.

Democrats have supported the changes, even if they would like to see them go further.

“It is important to find common ground and work across the aisle to make families, women, doctors feel safe regardless of whether I personally consider it too little progress,” Democratic Rep. John Ray Clemmons said. “For this reason I’m going to support this legislation proudly as a minimum step in the right direction.”

The proposal still has several steps before it can go before Gov. Lee’s desk. In the Senate, Republican Lt. Gov. Randy McNally has said he doesn’t believe the abortion ban needs changing but he won’t block any proposals from moving forward.

Lee has declined to say publicly whether he would veto any changes.

You can find more news from across the state here.

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